Summary: The Proliferation Security Initiative is a multi-national anti-proliferation measure that broadly interprets anti-proliferation activities to include aggressive counter-proliferation activities up to and including rollback and, potentially, regime change. It is America’s preferred tool for applying pressure on North Korea, employing proliferation concerns to interdict sanctioned and illicit North Korean cargoes and assets and achieve disruption tantamount to an economic blockade. In recent years, the PSI’s primary architect, John Bolton, has attempted to make PSI activities a binding obligation on all members in case of U.N. sanctions, with the implication that the United States and its allies would have the freedom to intervene and conduct interdiction activities if certain member nations lacked the capability or enthusiasm to engage in these activities themselves. China abhors the PSI as an instrument of U.S. military unilateralism and has managed to exclude reference to it from all U.N. resolutions. However, this has not deterred the United States and its allies from executing an overt PSI response in the context of North Korean sanctions and demanding similar responses from UN member states. Particularly with respect to Iran, it will be interesting to see if China can still rely on its veto power over military action in the Security Council to protect its interests and allies, given America’s aggressive implementation of the PSI under the rubric of economic sanctions.
One of the most interesting and potentially significant actions in the North Korea nuclear crisis occurred last week.
Hong Kong officials boarded a North Korean freighter, possibly because it was suspected of carrying military equipment.
Here’s the Chosun Daily version of events:
U.S. and Japan had been trailing the vessel, which left Nampo port in South Pyongan Province and was passing southward through the South China Sea. U.S. Broadcasters including CBS and CNN on Friday quoted intelligence officials as saying a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying weapons-related materials was being trailed.
The freighter arrived at Hong Kong port on Sunday evening, and Hong Kong authorities formally seized the vessel, the South China Morning Post said Tuesday. The 2,035 t Kang Nam I is a cargo carrier, but it arrived in Hong Kong with an empty load. Crew reportedly told authorities they were a simple cargo operation and planned to travel to Taiwan on Tuesday to pick up a load of scrap metal.
In their inspection of the vessel, Hong Kong authorities found 25 violations, 12 related to antiquated navigational charts and insufficient life equipment. But nothing related to weaponry or nuclear production was found.
The anxious world will be relieved to learn that America’s armed might was at the ready to confront the threat from this empty rustbucket:
As the Kang Nam I cruised into port in Hong Kong, the U.S. was preparing for a confrontation and dispatched the guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Gary to the scene.
Later reports, especially a detailed article by AFP, dismissed the seizure as routine, pointing out that Hong Kong had inspected 7 vessels and detained 9 prior to this incident.
For what it’s worth, the U.S. Consulate declared that the Gary was in Hong Kong on a routine port call and pooh-poohed the idea that it had been ready to steam into action against the 2000-ton Kang Nam, declaring "I can tell you that the USS Gary was not chasing any North Korean ships."
Nevertheless, the rumor mill had certainly been churning with the allegation that Christopher Hill had dropped the dime on the Kang Nam; also groundless, according to the consulate:
South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper quoted a source in Hong Kong as saying Assistant US Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who visited Hong Kong at the weekend, passed on intelligence about the ship and asked for it to be searched.
Mr Hill is the chief US envoy for North Korean affairs.
However, a US consulate spokesman said Mr Hill had been in town simply for "routine consultations" with consulate staff and "wasn't making any diplomatic presentations".
Or maybe the U.S. is worked up about a different ship altogether.
From the Korea Times:
A North Korean ship, which the United States and Japan suspect of carrying military equipment, is on a voyage without any inspection after stopping at Hong Kong for refueling, a top South Korean security official confirmed yesterday.
Song Min-soon, the chief presidential secretary for security affairs, said at the National Assembly that the ship, named Ponghwasan, left Nampo of North Korea on Oct. 19 and has been sailing southward after fueling up at an outer port of Hong Kong.
Maybe it’s just three or four simple misunderstandings.
Or maybe the U.S. government is actually testing the limits of Chinese cooperation in the inspection of North Korean vessels.
What would be remarkable about this event would not the fact that the U.S. Navy was primed for “confrontation”; or that U.S. intelligence had once again cried “wolf” on a North Korean proliferation issue, or that Washington was aggressively and perhaps dishonestly exploiting questionable intelligence as a pretext for disrupting North Korean economic activity.
It would be remarkable if the seizure took place in Hong Kong waters by the Hong Kong government in response to UN sanctions against North Korea, presumably with the acquiescence of Beijing.
That would seem to strike at the heart of China’s hostility to forcible interdiction, and the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Regime that underlies it.
The Proliferation Security Initiative is the brainchild of John Bolton. It asserts the right, responsibility, and need of various nations work together to interdict WMD-related cargoes.
Everything else about the PSI is a matter of conjecture, assertion, spin, and debate. It is described as a “an activity not an organization”, creating ad hoc responses to self-defined concerns, with its successes and procedures--beyond an anodyne Statement of Principles —secret.
In 2003, when the United States was still riding (relatively) high in Iraq, John Bolton conceived the PSI as a kind of coalition of the willing on water skis.
In Bolton’s mind, the UN sanctions process, at least as it pertained to regimes that the U.S. was hostile to, was hamstrung by the U.N.’s constitutional abhorrence of military action and the use of the veto by various permanent members of the Security Council, notably Russia and China, to block aggressive implementation of sanctions.
America’s invasion of Iraq seemed to demonstrate the fact that the U.S., simply by virtue of its status as the world’s only superpower and a U.N. member in good standing, could assert its prerogative to enforce a U.N. mandate unilaterally, with an armed invasion, and without any explicit U.N. sanction either for military force in general or a U.S. led effort in particular.
The Proliferation Security Initiative—including many of the same nations that joined the invasion of Iraq—was designed as a mechanism to enforce certain U.N. sanctions that the U.S. considered critical when the U.N. itself proved unwilling or unable to mandate enforcement activities itself.
In the words of the Wall Street Journal opinion page:
If arms control won't stop rogue bomb makers, what can? Well, regime change for one… But short of deposing a regime, the most successful policy has been the Bush Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative.
Operated out of the Pentagon on a "coalition of the willing" basis, PSI helped blow the whistle on Libya's clandestine nuclear program, rolled up A.Q. Khan's nuclear black market and has interdicted North Korean weapons shipments. The difference between this and the NPT is that the PSI doesn't give the feckless or evil a veto over what it does. It is a coalition of countries with a shared sense of purpose, and above all the willingness to act.
President Bush claims that more than 70 countries have endorsed the PSI. But only about a dozen countries are active participants in the PSI with the United States, primarily the EU states, Canada, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. They participate in conferences on intelligence sharing and operational concerns, and engage in joint exercises.
But China, Russia, and South Korea—key nations if the system was to be applied against North Korea—refused to sign on.
China, in particular, has unhappy memories of the Yin He incident of 1993, when the Clinton administration alleged that a Chinese container ship was carrying chemical weapons precursors destined for Iran. Diplomatic pressure by the United States prevented the Yin He from docking at any of its planned ports of call. After futile representations and impotent protests by the Chinese government and 20 days in nautical and diplomatic limbo the unlucky vessel finally proceeded to Saudi Arabia’s Dammam Port for a joint inspection of its 728 containers by the United States, China, and the Saudis—which found nothing.
Without a powerful blue-water naval presence, China places great store in freedom of the seas to protect its maritime activities and detests the PSI as a pretext for unilateral US action against America’s enemies (and China’s allies), and a potential tool for harassment of China’s large merchant fleet.
It also worries about US efforts to expand the geographic, jurisdictional, and legal scope of the PSI—worries that are quite well founded.
In 2004, PSI activities were apparently (see the Congressional Research Service Report The Proliferation Security Initiative available at the FAS website) extended to the disruption of financial networks that PSI participants deemed complicit in WMD transactions, in addition to interdicting the physical transfer of WMD contraband.
Bolton has labored mightily to obtain an official U.N. imprimatur for the PSI, so that any actions under the PSI could be convincingly presented as an accepted, routine corollary to UN sanctions.
Not surprisingly, given the disastrous outcome of America’s insistence on doing the U.N.’s dirty work for it in Iraq, the U.N. failed to endorse an enforcement regime that was completely untransparent, lacked significant regulations or oversight, was completely unaccountable and uncontrollable, and was led by a superpower which had most recently made a convincing demonstration of its dishonesty and incompetence in claiming a U.N. mandate for aggression against a member state.
Global attitudes toward the initiative were not improved by John Bolton’s bald assertion that the rigors of the PSI would apply only to America’s enemies and not to its allies.
The Research Director of the Arms Control Association reported:
John Bolton, a chief architect of PSI, said in an interview with my organization’s monthly publication Arms Control Today, “There are unquestionably states that are not within existing treaty regimes that possess weapons of mass destruction legitimately. We’re not trying to have a policy that attempts to cover each and every one of those circumstances.” In other words, India, Israel, and Pakistan are not under PSI scrutiny despite their possession of the very weapons and materials that the initiative is trying to stop the trade in and the exposure of the A.Q. Khan network operating from Pakistan.
In 2004, the U.N., in response to a high-profile call by President Bush, passed UNSCR resolution 1540, criminalizing WMD proliferation by non-state actors.
Although proposed by the United States as a way to enshrine the PSI as UN doctrine, the final resolution that emerged from the UN sausage mill failing to endorse the PSI or, indeed, provide for any enforcement mechanism (see this excellent report by the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy on the unsuccessful effort to make PSI-style interdiction a legal obligation of member states).
A disapproving analysis by the Jamestown Foundation stated:
The original intent of Washington to use the UN to change international law and criminalize behavior involving WMD proliferation was frustrated by Beijing. China had threatened to veto any resolution that endorsed the PSI. China has the world's third largest merchant fleet with over 2,000 ships, and will not allow them to be inspected for suspected arms shipments. Resolution 1540 is structured under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would require Security Council approval for enforcement action – action which China could veto.The day before the UNSC vote on the resolution, John R. Bolton, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, acknowledged that passage of 1540 would not be enough to fulfill American objectives.
According to Mark Valencia of the Nautilus Institute:
The resolution that passed was a much watered down version of the original submitted by the United States. For example, under a threat of veto by China, the United States dropped a provision specifically authorizing the interdiction of vessels suspected of transporting WMD. The resolution does not specifically mention the PSI and does little to strengthen its effectiveness because it focuses on non-state actors. Moreover most UN members have failed to meet the deadline to submit required reports on their efforts to comply with the resolution, i.e., strengthening their domestic laws criminalizing the spread of WMD as well as their export and border controls.
But this has not discouraged the U.S. Its official response, according to a PSI FAQ on the State Department website is that “UNSCR 1540 and the PSI SOP are mutually reinforcing and are legally and political compatible.”
While frustrated in his efforts to establish an obligatory enforcement regime with the PSI at its core, Ambassador Bolton has systematically labored to assert a reach for the PSI beyond the traditional right of cooperating states to inspect suspect ships within their own territorial waters.
The Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported:
Bolton stirred controversy [in 2003—ed.] when he stated after the meeting that "there is broad agreement within the group that we have [the] authority" to begin interdictions on the high seas and in international airspace. The United States feels it has such authorization in three cases, according to the newspaper The Australian: when ships do not display a nation's flag, they effectively become pirate ships that can be seized; when the ships use a "flag of convenience" and the nation chosen gives the United States or its allies permission, the ships can be stopped and searched; finally, Bolton told the paper, there is a "general right of self-defense" given a serious belief that the vessels carry WMD matériel.
Someone at the PSI mothership in the State Department has a sense of humor about the whole interdiction on the high seas issue. In a brief 12-item FAQ apparently designed to reveal nothing of significance (Question 1: Q.What are Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)? A. There is no universally accepted definition of the phrase 'weapons of mass destruction'…) the anonymous author pauses to address the following issue:
Q. Isn't the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) little better than state piracy?
A. Not at all. The PSI coalition members have made clear that any action taken will be in accordance with international law.
No, it’s supposed to be much better than state piracy. It’s supposed to be legal, dammit!
Despite Bolton’s assertions, however, the PSI nations have as yet shrunk from the momentous step of openly performing a forcible interdiction on the high seas.
Nevertheless, the PSI regime has been applied with considerable rigor to North Korea even before the nuclear tests and UNSCR 1718.
The Times of London reported the character of the program quite frankly in its July 2006 article, West mounts 'secret war' to keep nuclear North Korea in check (Note the interesting element that China was reportedly already cooperating to cut off North Korea’s supply of verboten chemicals even before the current nuclear brouhaha):
A PROGRAMME of covert action against nuclear and missile traffic to North Korea and Iran is to be intensified after last week’s missile tests by the North Korean regime.
Intelligence agencies, navies and air forces from at least 13 nations are quietly co-operating in a “secret war” against Pyongyang and Tehran.
It has so far involved interceptions of North Korean ships at sea, US agents prowling the waterfronts in Taiwan, multinational naval and air surveillance missions out of Singapore, investigators poring over the books of dubious banks in the former Portuguese colony of Macau and a fleet of planes and ships eavesdropping on the “hermit kingdom” in the waters north of Japan.
Few details filter out from western officials about the programme, which has operated since 2003, or about the American financial sanctions that accompany it.
But together they have tightened a noose around Kim Jong-il’s bankrupt, hungry nation.
“Diplomacy alone has not worked, military action is not on the table and so you’ll see a persistent increase in this kind of pressure,” said a senior western official.
In a telling example of the programme’s success, two Bush administration officials indicated last year that it had blocked North Korea from obtaining equipment used to make missile propellant.
The Americans also persuaded China to stop the sale of chemicals for North Korea’s nuclear weapons scientists. And a shipload of “precursor chemicals” for weapons was seized in Taiwan before it could reach a North Korean port.
According to John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations and the man who originally devised the programme, it has made a serious dent in North Korea’s revenues from ballistic missile sales.
Japan has also been an enthusiastic participant, taking dead aim at Pyongyang and its crabs of mass destruction:
In June 2003, Japan changed its policy in regard to the ferries operating from North Korea. Nearly 2,000 inspectors went to the port of Niigata to check for customs and immigration violations, infectious diseases, and safety violations on the North Korean vessel Man Gyong Bong-92. North Korea responded by immediately ceasing all ferries traveling between the two countries and cancelled a port visit by an unnamed vessel believed to be involved in espionage. The Japanese policy appears to be part of a large US strategy to involve regional actors in policing North Korean exports.
The Japanese Transport Minister, Chikage Ogi, stated that Japan intends to inspect all North Korean vessels at ports in Japan. On June 11 the 298 ton freighter Namsan 3 was detained at Maizuru and at the Otaru port in Hokkaido the 178-ton Daehungrason-2, carrying crabs, was also detained.
North Korea is especially vulnerable to interdiction activities. A significant percentage of its foreign exchange earnings derive from missile sales and various illegal shenanigans.
Chosun Daily reported:
A study by Dr. Park Chang-kwon and Dr. Kim Myung-jin at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) says full implementation of the PSI would deprive the North of hard currency gains of US$700 million-1 billion (US$=W958) by stopping exports of weapons and illegal drugs and counterfeit money. The sum accounts for 40-50 percent of the $2 billion the North earns through overseas transactions including inter-Korean business.
The fact that a relatively limited and politically defendable range of interdiction objectives under the flag of anti-proliferation could achieve destabilization and create regime change conditions roughly comparable to an economic blockade was something that Ambassador Bolton probably had in mind when he conceived of the PSI as a weapon against North Korea.
Nevertheless, U.N. legitimization of the PSI—and the right to demand inspection and interdiction based enforcement of U.N. sanctions by all member states--has eluded Bolton.
In UNSCR 1718, which instituted economic sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test, reference to PSI’s keynote measure—compulsory inspection, with the implication that the PSI participants might execute the mandated responsibility that certain footdraggers like China, Russia, and South Korea might be unwilling to assume—was excluded from the final text, which refers only to voluntary inspections by individual states—a traditional right of sovereign states concerning cargo and people transiting their territorial waters and airspace that does not rely on anything like the PSI to legalize:
(f) in order to ensure compliance with the requirements of this paragraph, and thereby preventing illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, their means of delivery and related materials, all Member States are called upon to take, in accordance with their national authorities and legislation, and consistent with international law, cooperative action including through inspection of cargo to and from the DPRK, as necessary...
The Chinese ambassador clearly and unequivocally repudiated the PSI.
From the Financial Times:
China said it could not support the PSI. Wang Guangya, China’s UN ambassador, said: “Politically China will not [support the PSI]. I believe that the exercises under PSI will easily lead, whether it is intentional or not, to...escalations of provocations.”
Nevertheless, with his indefatigable determination to distort or ignore any facts that conflict with his cherished objective of institutionalizing the PSI at the UN level, Bolton asserted that the UNSCR 1718 was a de facto endorsement of PSI interdiction activities against North Korea.
On October 12, Ambassador Bolton stated:
Reporter: Ambassador, if you don't get the language specifically with regards to interdiction in this resolution, do you believe that the authority already exists under international law to conduct that kind of interdiction?
Ambassador Bolton: I think that under the Statement of Interdiction Principles provided by the Proliferation Security Initiative, we have as much authority as we need. What we want is a Chapter VII resolution that makes that binding on all member states, so that that authority exists not just for those in PSI but for everybody.
There you have it. In a miraculous piece of jiu jitsu, instead of acknowledging that the PSI enjoys no official UN sanction, Bolton asserted that the only role left for the UN. is to compel its member states to adhere to the PSI regime that he invented.
It is this topsy-turvy view of the status of the U.N. that, I believe, explains why Ambassador Bolton was so determined to serve at an institution he so obviously detests, even though the U.S. Congress was so doubtful of his fitness for the job it refused to confirm him and instead subjected him to the humiliation of a recess appointment.
In Bolton’s mind, I believe, global security policy is formulated by the United States and it is his work to see that this policy becomes a binding obligation--enforceable if need be by the US and its allies--of the U.N. and its member states.
With his single-minded dedication to his policy and his instinctive contempt for the institution, its members, and its processes, John Bolton is the man to drive the UN to the necessary outcome through the shaping of appropriately-worded UN resolutions; the issuance of one sided declarations to meant to obscure opposition and exploit ambiguity; and, of course, the relentless jawboning of the media with his unique take on reality.
The North Korean crisis has been accompanied by an orgy of spinmeistering, abetted by a credulous press, intended to impute the UN stamp of approval on the PSI:
From the Financial Times:
Mr Bolton said: “The resolution...specifically gives states the right and indeed the obligation to help in inspections . . . that’s a substantial step forward.” He saw the move as a “codification” of the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
“I expect most inspections would take place in port. That is the most desirable,” he said. But “there are circumstances in which ships could be boarded at sea”. Land and air cargo would also be subject to inspection.
From Australia's ABC:
... by allowing cargo inspection, the document still puts an international imprimatur on the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
From the AP via Fox:
The council's go-ahead for the inspection of cargo gave broader global scope to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative launched in 2003 which urges countries to stop banned weapons from suspect countries including North Korea and Iran.
The Daily Telegraph:
The approval of the Security Council resolution bolsters the right of US naval commanders to stop and search suspect vessels. North Korean trade will now be liable to constant scrutiny.
From The Australian:
Resolution 1718 was a personal triumph for Mr Bolton, who managed to persuade a hesitant China not to veto the inclusion of the clause authorising the interdiction and inspection of cargo going to and from North Korea.
The provision effectively extends the controversial Proliferation Security Initiative, an informal alliance of some 60 nations including Australia that was set up by the US in 2002 to guard against the trade in weapons of mass destruction and related materials.
Congressman Ed Royce who, presumably, knows better (since he’s the chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation) managed to get two things—the UN endorsement and the high seas thing--wrong about the PSI in an op-ed in the Washing Times touting it as the best mechanism for handling the North Korean situation:
This low-key administration initiative, which has the U.N.'s blessing, has been interdicting illegal shipments of missiles and nuclear technology on the high seas.
From Ambassador Bolton himself:
The resolution also provides for a regime of inspections to ensure compliance with its provisions, building on the existing work of the Proliferation Security Initiative.
One of the ever more evident realities of Bolton-world is that any UN or international response to PSI short of formal official repudiation will be defiantly spun as a ringing endorsement of the effort and its author.
However, contrary to Ambassador Bolton’s vociferous assertions and reportage in a supportive international press that wears out the thesaurus (“codification”, “imprimatur”, “gives broader global scope”, “bolsters”, “effectively extends” etc.) on his behalf, UNSCR 1718 stops well short of endorsing, legitimizing, or even referencing the PSI regime.
I don’t see any evidence that Secretary Rice’s swing through Asia and Moscow has convinced any doubters that UNSCR 1718 should be regarded as a legal or moral obligation on them to inspect North Korean cargo. Interdiction and inspection will remain options for sovereign nations, and not obligations of member states conforming to a U.N. resolution—or U.S. interpretation of their responsibilities.
If one brushes aside the voluminous chaff distributed by the US and its allies, UNSCR 1718 is pretty straightforward: economic sanctions against North Korea until it returns without conditions to the Six-Party talks to negotiate the dismantling of its nuclear and missile programs.
It is not a universal commitment to a global program of compulsory economic harassment against North Korea whose extent and severity are matters to be decided by the United States.
The PSI can be seen as Bolton’s riposte to the current strategy of China and Russia to limit America’s capacity for mischief on issues like North Korea and Iran by explicitly precluding military action in any and all UN resolutions pertaining to these countries.
In the case of North Korea, Beijing and Moscow opened the door to economic sanctions only but limited the reach of sanctions—and the scope for potential unilateral enforcement of sanctions by the US and its allies—by refusing to allow compulsory interdiction and inspection to become a universal obligation of UN member states.
US efforts to expand the number of front line states willing to sign on to PSI activities against North Korea are unlikely to succeed. Therefore, the Bush administration and its close allies will have to be satisfied with discovering how far and effectively they can push the envelope of de facto economic blockade while limited to their territorial waters—and whatever activity in international waters they have the temerity to conduct.
If a similar situation arises vis a vis Iran, I consider it extremely unlikely that China and Russia will support even economic sanctions against Teheran, precisely because of Washington’s highly aggressive promotion of the PSI regime against Pyongyang.
Therefore, I would find it quite fascinating and significant if China had actually acquiesced to a PSI-style action—complete with a missile cruiser primed for “confrontation”--in Hong Kong harbor.